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I was contacted this week by the mum of a young man called Jake. Jake works as a personal trainer and, like most people, has tried to carry on working throughout the pandemic as best he can. Under the new restrictions imposed during England’s third lockdown, one-on-one outdoor personal training sessions are still permitted to go ahead. But in a business where you need to be up close and personal, staying safe hasn’t been easy.
Just over two weeks ago, Jake got a call from NHS test and trace to tell him he needed to self-isolate. As someone on a low income, he was advised to apply to Thurrock council, where I work as a councillor, for a self-isolation payment.
They told him he just needed to give his test and trace number and a few details to get help, but because Jake doesn’t receive benefits he wasn’t eligible for this funding. Instead, he was directed to a discretionary hardship scheme awarded by the council. Two weeks on from applying, Jake still hasn’t heard whether he will be awarded any funding, so he has had to self-isolate without the crucial income he needs to get by.
Jake isn’t the first Thurrock resident to tell me about the difficulty getting a self-isolation grant. Another constituent, an office worker who was previously refused the right to work from home by her employer, also had her application turned down after she tested positive for Covid. One local bricklayer applied after testing positive but was refused a grant, and felt he had no alternative but to continue working, putting others at risk.
These residents are far from alone. Across Thurrock, only 81 of 250 applications for the council’s discretionary hardship grants have been accepted, according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by the shadow communities secretary. Residents on low incomes are being directed to these grants because they don’t receive universal credit or other benefits, so they’re not eligible for the NHS test and trace payments.
The reasons for this are now clear. Councils in England were given £40m of central funding to cover self-isolation grants. Most of this was reserved for people receiving benefits, and only £15m was earmarked for discretionary payments to those on low incomes. Some councils decided to take a first-come-first-served approach to try to suppress infection rates but quickly ran out of cash. Others have restricted their eligibility criteria to make the money last for as long as possible.
The government is now reportedly considering paying everyone in England a £500 grant for self-isolating (although this proposal has been downplayed by government sources). A review of the current system is needed, but it raises the question: what took so long? Evidence shows that most people are being turned away from the discretionary scheme, with fewer than one in four people successfully getting support. All these people should be self-isolating, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be pushed into hardship for doing the right thing.
Self-isolating is one of the most effective ways to suppress transmission, yet the government has failed to ensure that everyone is able to do so. The result is that many who have tested positive for Covid and have self-isolated have been plunged into debt, while others have been forced to remain at work in order to put food on the table.Rishi Sunak has thrived in the pandemic, but his biggest challenges are yet to come | Katy Balls Read more
This is becoming an even more dangerous trend with a highly transmissible variant of Covid-19. Thurrock got through the first wave of the pandemic with mercifully low rates of infection, but that’s not the case now. The new strain of Covid has dealt a huge blow to our communities. Now, my borough is among the worst-affected places in the country.
Self-isolation is key to driving down these sky-high transmission rates. It’s more important than ever that people on low incomes know they can get the support they need to do the right thing and self-isolate without becoming destitute. And it is critical that the government gives councils enough discretionary funding to support anyone on a low income who needs it.
People such as Jake tell me they want to do their bit to protect others. But the truth is that hard-hit households need help to do the right thing. The government must ensure they get the support they need – and fast.
John Kent is a Labour councillor and leader of Thurrock Labour Group